Fortune Underfoot: Part Five

E-denta

It took three separate sessions across two days, but E-denta finally succeeded in painting all of Maggie’s toe nails. The idea came to her when Jones asked for everyone to search the surrounding area for plants. The Riches around them were getting so thick that Maggie couldn’t find enough to eat without their help. Oddly enough, Braxton had the most talent for rooting around the money and bringing up the flattened bodies of mostly dead bushes. The elephant didn’t care for them, so Jones had to chuck the limp plants into her mouth and order the beast to chew. Occasionally she would chew three or four times and spray the pulpy mess back out, staining his shirt a rotten green.

That’s what gave her the idea. Whenever she couldn’t find any vines or shrubs she gathered up the most brightly colored purple dollars and checks that showed up instead. Then, when the organic members of her family were asleep, she pulled out the collection, tossed it into a chipped helmet she’d also scavenged, added murky puddle water, and mashed with her fists until she had a moderately lumpy paint. She applied the paste to a brush made from a ball point pen and a lock of Jones’s hair she had plucked against his will, though Heart was the more upset of the two. It took so long because Maggie didn’t seem to appreciate the makeover; E-denta had to dodge her flailing legs after every stroke. Eventually though, a purple crust decorated every thick nail.

“She’s moving slower today,” Braxton commented on the eighth day of their journey. There was genuine concern in his voice, since the elephant was the only thing willing to carry him.

“We need to get out of here soon,” Jones said in response. “Doc, is there any way you can find us some forest nearby? Maybe a slight detour?” The doctor shook his head and looked down to E-denta, who walked alongside Maggie and petted her flank.

“What if she dies?” she asked. It was the first time death had really entered her mind. They were in danger at the tower, but that was so fast. Now she watched her new sister suffer, watched a thick goo creep into the corners of her bleary eyes, and saw her trunk hang low. The paint had failed to raise Maggie’s spirits.

“We all could die,” Heart scolded. “Where do you think people went when they left your lobby? Life isn’t all strobe lights and champagne fountains. It’s seizures and cirrhosis. They all left the party you were stuck in, and they came out here to earn what now coats the ground, and they died.”

She kicked at the money out of frustration. Coins arced up and away, flashing in the morning light like spray from a hose. Every step became a kick. She kicked. A moment passed. The coins hit the ground. She kicked. A moment. Coins. Kick, moment, coins. Kick, moment, coins. Kick… Kwang! E-denta flew forward onto her face, which plowed a trail into the cash in front of Maggie. The elephant sluggishly halted and swayed on her legs.

Augggh!” the robot cried through a mouth full of metal. She spat out three dollars and forty-one cents. “What tripped me? In the painful way!” They all looked back at the spot she’d flown from, where a twist of green metal stuck out of the earth. She brushed herself back to clean poverty and stomped over to the offending scrap. She grabbed it and wrenched it up and out, showering Maggie’s side with coins and wet black soil. “Sorry hun,” she said as she wiped the muck off the elephant’s flank.

“What is it?” Braxton asked, gesturing towards the pole in E-denta’s other hand, which she seemed to have momentarily forgotten.

“Oh.” Her eyes scanned the straight gray pole with the twisted bit of green metal at the top. “It’s a street sign! Looks like we’re strolling down… Devergoss Street.”

“Or maybe we’re strolling up it,” Jones said.

“Oh yeah… Yeah I think I like that better darlin’. We’re going up Devergoss Street!” She looked at the word’s large white letters for a moment. Her smile faded, replaced by a look of intense concentration. “Wait a circuit-frying second…” The others watched bewildered as she walked back and forth, holding the sign out as if hoping it would pick up the Earth’s magnetic field and point north.

“E? What are you doing?” Jones asked, but she shushed him. Braxton put his finger over his closed mouth mockingly.

“Best not interrupt her,” he whispered and chuckled. “I think she’s found a divining rod.”

“What do you make of this Doc?” Jones asked Heart.

“I can never figure out what she’s doing,” he replied. “Feminine intuition I suppose.” E-denta stopped. Her eyes closed and she mouthed something. Then she took off to the left, climbing a coin hill with the sign in her hands like a soldier trying to plant a flag.

“This way!” She cried.

“That’s off course!” Heart yelled after her.

“Trust me!”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” Heart said to Jones. It was too late though; he was already patting Maggie to urge her into changing direction. He directed the elephant around the coin hill and tried to get her to pick up speed.

“Trust is never advisable,” he said with a grin.

“Yeah,” Braxton agreed. “Follow that crazy chickbot.” Maggie only seemed to realize the need to speed up when E-denta got so far ahead they could barely make out the purple blur of her dress. She moved incredibly quickly and occasionally did acrobatic flips over mounds of platinum ingots. All whileMaggie’s feet scraped the unstable ground, tossing up clouds of money. She trumpeted, urging E-denta to slow down.

“This way! Food!” the sprinting sprite hollered. That word was one Jones had taught Maggie to recognize, so at the sound of it her speed doubled, sending Braxton rolling backwards towards her tail. Jones caught him by the collar and pulled him back.

“Thanks,” he stammered.

“I don’t know how easy it will be to get back on track,” Heart told them.

“The track doesn’t matter if Maggie keels over on it,” was Jones’s reasoning. “She’s not stupid Heart. She knows where she’s going.”

“She’s the only robot I’ve ever seen fall backwards down a flight of stairs,” Heart countered. Jones ignored the insult and joined Braxton in calling after her. Every time they urged her to slow down she seemed to get farther ahead until she disappeared over a ridge of boulders and ingots, using a solid gold doghouse as a stepping stone. A geyser of purple light shot out from behind the ridge and broke into small bright dots that started circling.

“It’s her butterflies!” Braxton said. The dollar litter on the ground grew thinner. Spots of barren dirt appeared between coin puddles. They could now make out patches of clover anchored around the base of the boulders. A tree, looking wispy and mummified, may or may not have been alive. Jones slowed Maggie down.

“Easy girl. You know you can’t handle those rocks. Left Maggie, left.” The elephant snorted impatiently and stomped around the boulders.

E-denta waited for them in the middle of a clearing. The area was circular and any traces of wind seemed to die at its edges. The ground beneath the robot’s feet looked like turquoise sand, with every grain arranged perfectly into curling arrow shapes that pointed towards the center. There were no plants, no coins, and no dollars within: just E-denta, the Devergoss street sign still clamped in her hand and held like a walking stick, and the bigger sign she leaned against.

This new sign struggled to impress them. Its outline was made of metallic sections that flowed in and out, changing its shape rhythmically. In the ten seconds it took Jones to read it the sign went from a circle to a triangle, to a square, to a pentagon, and so on until the figure had so many edges that it cycled back to a circle.

Welcome to the Devergoss Hotel!

One of three nanocustomization facilities in the continental U.S.

No vacancy? No problem! We’ll make one for you!

“What…” Jones started. He let his mouth hang open for a while before continuing. “What is this E-denta? I don’t see any food.” She was about to speak up when Dr. Heart stole their attention.

“It’s bad news, that’s what it is.”

“Uhh no,” she scoffed. “These little guys are going to bring us a buffet for Maggie. See?” She pointed to the bottom of the sign, at a line of small print Jones hadn’t noticed. Pets welcome. “See Maggie, you’re welcome.”

“Hotels mean food, and beds, and pillows. Real pillows with remembering foam and silk cases. Not bags filled with rotting money,” Braxton said as he hopped from the elephant’s back, wobbled on his feet, and stepped towards the sign.

“No wait!” Heart exclaimed. The tip of Braxton’s bare toes made contact with the turquoise sand, which then announced, very clearly, that it was not sand at all. The whole clearing exploded into activity, the sand-like substance whipping off the ground and into a great spinning disc like the eye of a hurricane. E-denta’s legs disappeared in it. A wave of greenish-blue particles swept over Braxton’s body. He shouted and was pulled towards the center, out of sight.

“Braxton!” Jones yelled, only to realize the whipping sound of the bizarre storm drowned him out.

Jones, I’m backing us up, Heart said silently. He took control of their body, which scrambled backwards off Maggie. As they slipped off her side their view of the storm turned into a gray canvas of elephant skin. Jones expected to bump his head on the ground, but the pain didn’t come. Nothing attached to him seemed to bump anything. He tilted his neck to see. They were being held up by an extension of the storm: a greenish protuberance from the main body. It grew up and around, encasing him. Struggling proved useless; each time an arm broke free the grainy film just folded up around it like a peel trying to recapture an escaped banana. The extension pulsed, overtaking Maggie’s body and pulling them all in. The elephant’s feet scraped across the dry ground, leaving deep gouges and cracks in its surface. Jones was pressed up against her side.

Is it killing us Doc? He asked.

I don’t think so.

What is this stuff?

Nanobots. I’ll explain when they aren’t trying to fly into everyone’s orifices. Just relax.

Jones let his limbs go slack. Even though he knew Charybdis would be useless against such a fluid enemy, he still wanted the rifle in his hands. The particles bounced off his bare skin like dust bunnies brought to life by static cling. He realized he wasn’t physically uncomfortable; in fact, he now felt almost like the nanobots cradled him. The storm became more organized; he caught flashes of objects as the cloud directed them about. Maggie’s trunk. Their supplies, taken from her back. Braxton’s shirt separated from its owner. A quick look at E-denta’s feet, still firmly on the ground, convinced him he was briefly being held upside down. There was now money mixed into the chaos.

The nanobots holding him combined with a cloud of money and settled into the shape of an armchair. They dropped him into the papery cushioned thing, thoroughly confused. Braxton, wearing a heavily stained undershirt, was placed in another chair next to him. Maggie stood, still frightened, on a massive cushion of what looked like interwoven stock certificates. E-denta came into view, still standing next to the hotel sign.

The sunlight disappeared. The nanobots glued coins to dollars to rocks, making walls all around them. Soon they were enclosed in a room the shape of a twisted dollop of icing. Light bled through where the walls only had one layer of currency. The coins left small discs of shadow on the floor. Music started to play from somewhere as a few plate-sized clouds of nanobots appeared before them and rapidly compacted into solid shapes. The little bodies hovered as they grew tentacles, small red hats, and marble-like eyes.

“The website says they’re called bellhoptopuses,” E-denta giggled out. Holes appeared in the ground, each bellhoptopus lifting a tray of food from them. A trough opened up for Maggie and quickly filled with fresh fruits and vegetables that looked like they had been coated with glistening dew by a spring night. The elephant and Braxton dug in, but Jones was too full of questions to be hungry. “Yeah, I totally saved us,” E-denta gloated. The loudest sound now was Maggie slurping at the juices dribbling from her lips. A bellhoptopus started nudging Jones’s chin with a plate of meaty-smelling tubes wrapped in steaming corn tortillas. Another one appeared with a glass of something fizzy.

“You might as well eat,” Dr. Heart conceded. “I have a feeling we’ll be here a while.”

Digz

They quickly found their way into old money. Some of the bills stuck to Digz’s shoes like slimy spinach leaves while others sprouted the fruiting bodies of various fungi. Ghostly toadstools erupted in armchair sized clusters. Everything smelled like metal shavings mixed into a wet hay salad. He wondered if this money had been rotting since the dawn of finance.

Vippers led the way and Longjump brought up the rear. Judging by the sun’s position and the level of stabbing pain in his left ankle, Digz guessed they had been walking for six hours. Brightside was miles behind them, and with it all of the comfortable beds, chairs, and hammocks he craved.

“You’re walking us to the underworld,” he whined at Vippers. “No way anybody lives here; everything’s dead.” Vippers turned around and walked backwards so that Digz could see the words written on his face.

“You asked me to show you where he was and that’s what I’m doing. He didn’t tell me if he actually lives here or is merely… vacationing.”

“Where is here anyway?”

“Campaign headquarters,” Vippers replied and stopped walking. Digz stared around the robot. A gaping hole in the side of a hill was partially covered with wooden planks. A goat stood nearby, munching indiscriminately on mushrooms and paper.

“Let me guess,” Digz said, pointing to the goat. “That’s my vice president.”

“Kudos on remembering your titles, but no. Brittle is this way, if he’s in at all.” Vippers led them down into the hole. Small glow sticks embedded in the wall illuminated their steep descent. When things leveled out Digz noticed the massive size of the new chamber. Rows and rows of mushrooms grew in raised boxes; they were being farmed. Robots, of random models and age, tended to them. Other automaton shells littered the ground. Over to one side Digz saw a massive anaconda nailed to the wall like a party banner with drooping edges. A large section was missing from its middle, with wires hanging out. Something clicked in Digz’s head.

“That’s how he moves!” he whispered to Longjump, who could not have cared less. “He took some piece from that robot snake and he wears it under his shirts. That’s how come he can slither!” The excited whispers drew agitated stares from the various machines.

“Get in here!” Brittle’s voice boomed from one chamber over. He had been alerted. Digz found himself a little angry where he would normally be a sniveling wreck in the corner. Who was he to berate him after everything? Brittle was shoving him back and forth like a bug crawling across a map and he acts offended when the bug dares to crawl up his thumb?

This bug’s got things to buzz about, Digz thought. This bug’s got a stinger. He managed to maintain his anger long enough to storm in. Brittle lounged on a pile of multicolored cushions and delivered orders to a group of small weasel-shaped robots which scattered at the sight of the intruder. Before either of them spoke, Digz thought he heard someone laugh. Someone young. The sound died away like a hopeful notion sucked into a coffin and buried. For a second he forgot why he was there.

“You should be campaigning,” Brittle said flatly.

“Nerva wants it too. She’s handing out votes.”

“I know.”

“Okay… how?”

“Every other eye and ear in Brightside works for me, even if they don’t know it.” Digz felt steam building behind his eyes. Something was going on, and it was happening simultaneously over his head and under his nose. Things were slipping out of his grasp and piling up on his back. It was stress. Not the stress of an empty stomach or a deep gash, something worse. It felt like his whole life was riding on solving an equation that kept swelling with new variables. His spirit had never been so angry, or so weak.

“What is this?” he howled and shredded the air with imaginary claws. He kicked a purple cushion up at Brittle, who absorbed the blow. It rolled back to the bottom. “Why are you doing all this? Why am I doing all this? Do it yourself. Do something your god damn self!” His breath came out dry and hot, like a wretch who’d had sand poured down his throat.

“I do it for the forgotten power,” Brittle said. Digz could hear the clenched fists in his voice even though his limbs were as still as ever. “Don’t you ever wonder why our world is this way Digz? Don’t you wonder what happened that could turn utopia into a trash can?” Brittle breathed deeply and looked towards the ceiling, at one little ray of light poking through a crack in the cavern. As he spoke Digz noticed that Brittle never once looked him in the eye. Instead his gaze drifted around the walls.

“It was humanity’s greatest achievement. Power… without responsibility. Corporations, Digz,” he explained to his mystified pawn. “A collection of people that had all of the rights and privileges of each of its parts, but could not be punished. An amorphous cloud of gobbling energy. An alloy of greed and freedom. I want that power. I want the ability to do nothing, yet shape everything. First, I had to render myself useless. So that’s what I did.” Digz remembered the snake, ripped open and gutted of its imitation muscles.

“I am what they were, before the old world fell. Everyone makes their own choices Digz. Their choices are the only arms and legs I need. It’s the same with you now. When I schedule the election they will hand in the votes. You will win. Everyone, at some point, chose you. They will feel duped, and yet, like they can do nothing about it. You will rule Digz. When I need something from Brightside you will give it to me. Just as when I need something from Pueblo, Godmask, Sinsinarri, Bottlenose, or any other town, I will get it. I am as they were, just focused into one body: both useless and omnipotent.”

Digz rested on the cushions by the end of the speech. If he tried to reach the top of the pile, to throttle Brittle, what would happen? He wouldn’t lift a finger to save himself, but everything else would. There were probably a hundred robots eyeing them right now, ready to kill Digz if they had to. Or maybe there weren’t.

This is the feeling he was talking about, Digz realized. I feel like I can’t even climb a pile of pillows.

“Vippers, escort him back to the campaign trail,” Brittle ordered. His head lolled backwards, not bothering to look anywhere. A cold metal hand closed around Digz’s shoulder. He left willingly. On his way out he heard that young laugh again and just knew that somewhere in that cave there was someone he could not help, and who could not fathom the insidious nature of the forces around them.

Jones and Heart

The bellhoptopuses took their empty plates away. The trough in front of Maggie tried to close itself, but she forced it back open with her trunk. The last thing the elephant wanted was for the food to be hidden. E-denta sat on the arm of Jones’s chair.

“Well that stinks; they didn’t make me a chair. In the rude way,” she pouted.

“Because you’re not organic,” Heart said wearily. “That’s why they didn’t activate until Braxton stumbled in. They’re programmed for human guests.”

“Stop,” Jones said. “Before you two start bickering again I want to know what these things are, how you knew about them, and when we can get back on the road.”

“People always talked about it right after it opened,” E-denta explained. She absentmindedly peeled money from the couch’s arm. “In between drinks and dances they asked each other if they’d ever been to the Devergoss Hotel. It sounded like so much fun. In the super way. They said it built rooms to suit your preferences. When I saw the sign I checked the website for the hotel and it said they were still in business. I messaged them and they gave me directions from the street. I figured they could suit Maggie’s preference for a full stomach. Aaaaaand that’s how this damsel saved you boys.”

“Why’d they take my shirt?” Braxton asked.

“To clean it I imagine,” Dr. Heart said. Braxton nodded and leaned his head back on the chair, his biggest concern addressed. The chair started to massage his lower back; he let out a choppy moan of pleasure.

“Where’d the food come from?” Jones asked.

“They must be farming it underground. They’ve probably been doing it since the old world, tossing out everything the moment it’s not at its freshest.”

“How do you know that Doc?”

“It’s what I would do if I were programmed to make humans comfortable. That’s the problem.”

“What problem?” E-denta asked. “You just can’t stand that a girl beat you.” She stuck out her imitation tongue.

“Jones, I’m sure you remember the first problem I caused,” Heart said.

“Yeah, you planted yourself in my bones like a mangrove and in my brain like a debt.”

“Because?”

“Because you’re programmed to keep the patient you have.” Understanding dawned on him. He hopped up and scanned the room. No doors. He walked over to their packs, which the bellhoptopuses had piled in the corner. He dug Charybdis out from under them and took aim at the wall. He fired. A small hole appeared, letting one beam of light in that landed on Braxton’s eyes. He turned away and closed them.

“Just relax you trigger happy fool,” he said. The hole quickly sealed itself, moving like dribbling cement. Jones’s trigger finger got angrier. Six more holes, each in a different spot. One by one they closed.

“I screwed up,” E-denta whimpered and held herself like she was cold.

“It’s okay,” Jones said. “We all do.” He didn’t think he could handle it if she stopped smiling; one of them had to stay positive. The world couldn’t be left to the greedy revenge of Oregon 1 or the man-boys of Godmask. “Really. We’ll figure it out.” He smiled at her.

“I don’t think it matters how many holes we put in it,” Dr. Heart grumbled. “Nanobots are even more stubborn than regular machines. Each one is a tiny head just nodding along to the orders it receives.”

A dry stiff sound, like someone punching a hay bale, filled the chamber as Jones’s fists pummeled the wall experimentally. He thought he heard part of it crack, so he doubled the speed of his blows. The wall flexed outward briefly, but then pulled back in. Jones wondered why his hands weren’t hurting yet. If he had punched any other wall he’d be painting it with his bloody knuckles by then. Heart wasn’t even stopping him.

Because they want me comfortable, Jones thought. They want me safe, fat, and encouraged. He looked with disgust at Braxton, who snored. Jones resumed his assault on the invincible wall. Each punch felt more ineffectual than the last, but he kept at it like a broken drill sparking against stone. Thup. Thupth. Thup. Thupth.

“Got a machine inside and a machine outside,” Jones said to the wall. Thup. “I can do whatever I want, they say.” Thupth. “Whatever I want.” Thup. “Well I want to save those people!” His healthy misery-curled fingers slide down the wall.

“Maybe we don’t have to help them,” E-denta suggested. Jones looked at her like he couldn’t believe his ears. “I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that… Fortis is supposed to be the greatest right? They can probably take care of themselves.”

“This is all my fault,” Jones responded. “Even if they can, I need to be there to offer help. Heart, how long do we have until Oregon 1 reaches the city?”

“Nine days,” Dr. Heart calculated.

“Nine days…” Jones repeated. He dropped to the floor, which immediately rose up and formed a chair around him. The one he used before, which E-denta now sat in, dissolved and let her fall. Instead of her usual exaggerated wail she just sat there and acted like the appliance her makers had intended.

Looking away from the tragic sight, Jones rose from the chair, all the while wishing that it hadn’t been so damn comfy. He returned to the bags and dug out his ancient cell phone. Maybe he could call for help. No. He only knew the one number. Jones gripped it tightly. Braxton’s rest became more peaceful, and silence tightened around the group.

Hours passed, and the drought of ideas continued. After his initial attempts at shooting and punching his way out failed, Jones hadn’t said a thing.

“Why do you carry that?” E-denta asked. He looked up. A thick red mark on his forehead showed where it had pressed into his knee for the past hour. He looked at his hand and saw streaks of palm sweat on the phone. Could he say? Why not. Heart had already put the story on the internet. Oregon 1 already knew why Jones didn’t deserve his optimism.

“It’s all I have left,” he started. He choked on the words, like trying to swallow a mouthful of soggy popcorn. “Of my family. My wife has one just like it. At least I hope she has it.”

“I didn’t know you were married,” she said, trying to hide how enthralled she was.

“It was many years ago. Before Brightside. I met her in a place called Copperbar. She helped run an apple orchard.” Jones laughed feebly. “She caught me stealing some and almost tipped me. I didn’t know they belonged to anybody.”

“What was her name?” E-denta asked, electric eyes twinkling.

“Gala. Her parents named her after the apples, like how mine… you know.” Jones pulled a duffel bag towards him and arranged it under one of the thin wall patches so the light fell onto its solar panel. He plugged the phone in to let it charge. A green light raced around the phone’s edge and it chirped like a hatchling bird.

“We got married under the tree I stole from.” Tears rolled down his skin, which had taken on a rough burnt tone like brittle wood. “We were happy, but eventually we got bored of Copperbar. Gala wanted to see new places… and any place with her was new to me so,”

“That’s sweet,” E-denta cooed, wringing her hands together longingly.

“So we traveled. Saw waterfalls, gorges, buffalo… But then we had to settle down. So we found a house and ousted the spiders. It was a nice green place too, not much money. Great spot for her to have the baby.” E-denta had shuffled up next to him. He’d never seen her so focused. Of course, he thought. All she ever saw was love the caterpillar. She’s never seen it mature. Never seen the cocoon, the butterfly, or the eggs. “Gala used to say she thought she was going to get bigger than the house before the baby came. She was so beautiful… and our daughter… she got that from her mother.”

“I think she got it from both of you,” E-denta said. Jones chuckled again. A few bowling ball tears broke across his pant leg.

“We named her Lora. She deserved a name, not like what we got. We had labels, price stickers. Expectations. Lora was just a name, just the string of sounds that meant our gorgeous baby girl. Her little head filled up with chestnut hair and she started learning words. But then…” His breath came in gasps now. He felt like a child, with his father’s shadow cast over him as monsoon clouds. The words weren’t coming out, just long painful sounds. He realized he’d never gone through the physical ordeal of telling anyone. Now that he said it, he felt it all over again. Or still. He wasn’t sure. A few colossal inward breaths later he forced the end of the story out. It felt like a bitter venom clung to his tongue, the corners of his eyes, and the bottom of his lungs.

“Then it came. Out of nowhere. For no reason. A robot, like Oregon 2. Black and red. It knocked me out when I was getting water… I was only out for a minute… Then it broke down our door. I remember running into the house, not caring about the door splinters stuck in my bare feet. That damn machine… That hell-made iron fiend stole our Lora from her mother’s arms.” Jones made a sound that could’ve drawn sympathy out of barren earth. “And it ran off! It ran away with our child!” Jones’s head sank back to his knees. He sobbed recklessly, getting much less air than he needed. Heart took care of that silently.

The doctor was the only glad one in the room. He’d known Jones needed to say it to someone ever since they connected. He couldn’t have forced him to though; it would’ve defeated the whole point. The catharsis wouldn’t have occurred. So he silently appreciated Jones’s strength and let their body rock and cringe in all the natural choreography of grief. E-denta hugged them.

“I would’ve stopped him if I was there,” she said. “I would’ve torn at him like a wet saw. In the furious way.” He took the hug graciously even though the metal joint of her elbow pressed into his side painfully. Then something else rested on his thigh. For a moment there was no comprehending it. It was too absurd; it put too much weight on his spirit. His life couldn’t be so tragic that it moved even a Godmasker.

And yet Braxton’s hand rested on him. He patted the spot a few times in an effort to console. His eyes weren’t rolling or looking away.

“That’s not right,” he said. “I said I did some things in Godmask… it was just talk though. I said that I killed people’s families. I didn’t though. Maybe I shouldn’t have said those things. I didn’t think there was… you know… people like you hanging from my words. And when my orders and shouts end you just fall… like this.” Braxton couldn’t take looking into the tides of Jones’s eyes any longer. He broke their stare and flinched as if hearing glass shatter. “I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore.” He retreated back to his chair and ordered an idling bellhoptopus to bring him a drink.

“He’s not done with the story yet,” E-denta called after him, but Braxton had used up his empathetic capacity and waved her off. “Go ahead babe. Tell us about the phone.”

“Oh.” Jones had forgotten why he started the story. Even after all that pain there was still more. There was still an angry pustule hanging on the end of the tale, ready to burst. “Okay. We looked for Lora… for a long time. Years. After three I was ready to give up. I know I shouldn’t have been but I was. I think the robot… took her from this Earth.” Jones closed his eyes.

“Gala wouldn’t hear of it. It seemed like she yelled for weeks. But then… she handed me the phone. I think she just found them in some abandoned store and turned them on.” Jones’s eyes closed tighter. Her voice clawed at him now. He could hear the coldness of her last words to him, like icicles dripping in his ears. “I don’t think she could stand to look at me after I suggested we give up. So she gave me a phone and said we should split up to look for Lora. If we found her we could send messages to each other.”

A little more Jones, Heart thought.

“So we did. I was supposed to search Brightside. And I did… but I never left. There was never as much as a trace. Gala didn’t care though. I think it drove her mad.” Jones gasped again. “How can I say this? I abandoned both of them. I’m the mad one for not being driven mad by it! By all that is good I should be a slobbering lunatic. I should be driven by loss to drink battery acid!” He wiped his sleeve across his nose, leaving a dark viscous trail behind.

“But I’m not. I’m here. I’m acting like it never happened. But I still keep the phone.” He held it up. “I still keep the phone. Early on she used to send messages. Her name would show up on the screen with something like no sign yet or don’t give up or She’s not in Sinsinarri. Nothing now though. She won’t respond to anything I send. Nothing for a long time.”

“Jones?” E-denta said, directing his haggard face to hers. Dr. Heart looked at her and nodded, seemingly glad she was being useful for once. “You’re allowed to be happy.” Something burst inside Jones. It wasn’t the red pustule of pain he had envisioned, but something much cleaner. A light cascaded across and through his shoulders, over and into his heart. Fresh tears came, but he couldn’t feel them against the tingling of his skin.

Is that true? he thought. Is this all I need? Jones realized that it didn’t matter who had said what E-denta said. He wanted to hear it from Gala, from his lost child, but the deepest parts of him didn’t care. Anyone could absolve him, whether it was the caricature of a woman hugging him now or a sign on the road. Yes, he realized. Even a sign would have done it. Even a rotted plank with the words ‘you can be happy’ might’ve melted me. I’m weak. I’m mortal. I’m selfish. But I’m allowed tuh be happy… and I’m not alone.

“Thank you,” he said, wiping the last of the tears away. He smiled. “Let’s get something to eat.”

“Well you can,” E-denta said.

“Oh right, sorry.” With his troubles fading into the background, his hunger stepped forward and rumbled thunderously. Summoned by the sound, a bellhoptopus hovered over and waited patiently for an order. “Bring me some pineapple. And corn chips with cheese sauce. And fizzy water.” The creature nodded and started to zoom away. “Wait a second,” Jones called after it. It turned back. “And chocolate with raspberries.” The wiggling construct flew off into the bowels of the hotel. “Maybe we can eat our way out of here,” he joked.

Digz

A stage had been erected overnight in front of Brightside’s biggest screen. The screen displayed two portraits in bubbles circling each other. One held Digz with a smile he hadn’t felt anything like in weeks. The other had Nerva with her hair uncharacteristically straight and draped across her shoulders. Occasionally the two portraits slammed into each other, splashing sparks across the screen.

The speakers blasted something you could march to, or shoot someone to. Blue and gold banners hung between the rows of the closest buildings, already growing heavy with bird droppings. People started to gather, the music drawing them in from their laundry, their gambling, their food preparation, and a few scattered rain dances. Digz was among them, bodyguard in tow.

“Brittle’s bots probably threw this together last night,” Digz said to Longjump, who ignored the statement and all the venom it carried. But I’m going up there, Digz thought. I’m not going to cross him. Vippers leapt off the stage and ran up to Digz.

“There you are,” he displayed. “Get up here. People need to see that you’re punctual.” His campaign manager grabbed his arm and dragged him forward. Digz shook free, but continued towards the stage. I can do good things with this place. The kind of things Jones would do. Jones… he would cut a snake like Brittle up and roast him. And share the pieces.

Digz pulled himself up onto the plywood stage and headed for one of two armchairs, which sat on either side of a microphone stand. A moment before his backside made contact something kicked him away. He stumbled and turned around to see Nerva seated in it with one black boot outstretched. She said nothing, just crossed her legs and smiled. Vippers grabbed his shoulders and drove him to the other chair. Digz sank into it and looked out at what might be, in a few minutes, a crowd of his people.

They stared expectantly. A few of them actually grasped the consequences of the ceremony. The rest busied themselves as best they could until they could cast their vote, erase their debt, and leave. Several ears were being cleaned by pinky nails. Vippers stomped on the stage a few times to draw everyone’s attention.

“It’s time to elect your new president,” he displayed. “Each candidate will give a brief statement of intent and then you will cast your votes by placing them in the slot in front of your candidate.” The robot turned to Nerva. “Ladies first.” She rose from her spongy chair and pranced to the microphone stand. Vippers put his hands on the sides of his screen and leaned towards Digz in his equivalent of whispering. “People remember who goes last the best.”

Nerva cleared her throat and rolled up the blue sleeves of her blouse. Knobby gold buttons pulled the neckline down, showing some heavily-veined cleavage. She wrapped her false nails around the microphone stand. Her color drained slightly, turning her skin a dusty white.

“Brightsiders, where did you have fun last?” A man she had planted in the audience yelled in response.

“The Orange Circle Casino!”

“That’s right,” she said. “Where did you have the best meal of your life?”

“The Orange Circle!” a few citizens shouted.

“Of course. Where do you win your dinner?”

“The Orange Circle!”

“Who would take that away from you? Who, in his unique, sniveling, backstabbing way, wants you to forget about the joys I provide? Who wants to run the police like a pack of raccoons, raiding my stores so the luckiest of us get nothing?”

“Digz!”

If I win I’ll control the police? Digz thought. I guess I would. She does. That’s how she gets things done. That’s how she keeps the other casinos small.

“Then don’t honor your debt to him! I will accept the votes Digz forced on you, and keep the dice rolling!” The crowd roared, with Nerva’s planted employees whistling and waving their hands like songbirds in need of tuning. Their candidate took the noise in with open arms and then strutted back to her armchair where she threw flirtatious glances at the voters standing near Digz’s side of the stage. Vippers leaned in and hid his screen again.

“I’ve got something special arranged for when the votes are cast. I didn’t tell you because your reaction shouldn’t be rehearsed. Roll with it. For now, just stay positive. Use happy words. ‘Prosperous’ is a key one. Oh and don’t forget what Brittle might do if you lose. It’s hard to breathe once you’ve been swept under the rug.” The robot patted him on the back so hard that he rose out of the chair and barely managed to stay on his feet. The campaign advisor then took up his lightning rod posture and clapped enthusiastically. The crowd was mostly silent. Longjump tossed a pebble that cracked Vippers’s screen. He didn’t move in response, as drawing attention away from Digz could hurt his chances.

The gap-toothed candidate stared out into the puddle of faces. What was he supposed to say? He didn’t think he deserved to rule anybody. If he lost, either Brittle or Nerva would make sure his life became a tangled mess of bloody wires, if they let him live at all. He grabbed the microphone and swallowed, jumping slightly when he heard the sound through the speakers. All of his subjects grimaced, having heard his spit catch in his throat. What would Jones say? Or… what would I say if I was as good as him?

“Brightsiders,” he started, “what about the unlucky ones? Do they deserve to starve or freeze because it’s not in the cards? I… I know what it’s like to not have what you need in your hand. I know what it’s like to watch somebody else get a lucky roll and walk off with enough supplies for ten people. You feel worthless. And angry. And you want to destroy something. Well, why don’t we end those feelings? Why don’t we destroy the Orange Circle Casino?” Nerva went rigid and her face tightened like the skin of it was being yanked in ten different directions with fish hooks. “I’ll do that if I win. I’ll take the food and the shelter and split it up, so everyone gets something for the work they do. You won’t have to gamble. Your life… your life will be a sure thing… oh and prosperous too!”

The speech won few converts. The most enthusiastic sound from the crowd was a belch. Where’s that stupid robot’s secret weapon?

Vippers explained the voting procedure once more and people lined up in front of the stage to deposit their token. The two lines blended together, making it difficult to tell who was being voted for. Most in the crowd did their best to keep their heads down and drift in the middle while trying to decide whether to honor their debt or to have an opinion. Digz’s fingernails scratched grimy bits off the arm of his chair. His eyes were closed.

Everyone heard the clacking sound of votes piling up beneath the stage. Votes slid methodically into each candidate’s slots for a few moments before a new sound made Digz open his eyes: gasps of horror and revulsion from Nerva’s side of the stage. Each person who cast a vote on her end took an extra moment to stare deep into the slot. When their heads rose some looked disgusted and others had tears in their eyes. Nerva took immediate notice.

“What’s the problem down there? Droft, go check it out,” she ordered. One of her bodyguards waded through the crowd and placed his meaty forehead against the slot.

“There’s somebody under the stage,” he called back.

“Well don’t just stand there, pull him out!” she yelled. “Digz is probably cheating; he’s got someone under there shifting votes from our side to his.”

“No I don’t,” Digz said a moment before realizing that this hidden person might be what Vippers was talking about. Nah, Digz thought, Brittle’s plan would be smarter than that.

The burly Droft kicked at the bottom of the stage until the plywood broke away. A small pile of votes came tumbling out, along with a sluggishly squirming male body in a black sweatshirt. Red scars around hiss nostrils flared up. The man looked scared, like a rat dragged from its burrow.

“Silver?” Digz uttered. Buck Silver rolled away from the votes and got to his feet. The man was a ghoul of his former self: matted hair, eyes without confidence, and a general purplish color like a rotting plum.

“Get him out of here Droft!” Nerva shrieked. The bodyguard picked Silver up the way he might a fainted woman and quickly walked away. Even he feels sorry for him, Digz thought. Wait… that’s it. Silver’s the surprise.

“You see what happens,” Digz said to the crowd, “when she runs this place. You can wind up with pieces missing. No matter how bad you screw up, I would never do that to you.” It felt good to tell the truth. His leadership might turn the town into a mud puddle, but he would never do that. He would never hold a knife to anyone’s stomach, even the man that had done it to him.

“Shut up you,” Nerva snarled. “Everyone finish voting… Now!” The crowd reformed and the sound of votes being cast once again took over. The people of Brightside did more thinking in those ten minutes than they had the previous few months. The last vote slid in. The stage was ripped open. People muttered numbers under their breath as they counted, recounted, and recounted. Digz’s head felt like a rock slowly cracked open by expanding fissures of ice. A winner was declared.

Jones and Heart

Man and robot were locked in an epic struggle of wills. Braxton and E-denta watched, cheering each side on. Jones would have victory. He could practically taste it. All he had to do was pull as hard as he could. His right arm hung in mid-air, inches from his open mouth. Dr. Heart’s tendrils froze the arm in place, preventing Jones from bringing it any closer, from succeeding. Clasped in his frozen hand, the prize began to melt. A piece of it broke off and hit the floor. Braxton grabbed it and shoved it in his mouth, simultaneously mumbling something about a five second rule. He chewed and swallowed, exaggerating his pleasure.

“Oh no wonder you want this Jones,” he said. “It tastes awesome. It’s like a chocolate cloud with bolts of fruit lightning.”

“I wish I could taste chocolate,” E-denta added.

“So do I!” Jones howled. He stuck out his tongue, foolishly hoping it would stretch to his hand and lick the bar of raspberry-infused chocolate. It didn’t even come close. Again he tried to bring mouth and chocolate together. He focused hard on the image of punching himself in the face, and thought he felt his arm move a little closer.

“Stop resisting Jones,” Dr. Heart scolded. “You’ll start tearing muscle fiber if you keep it up.”

“Well then give me my chocolate,” Jones said, lolling tongue obscuring some of the words. No matter what he said Heart refused to let the candy bar reach his gullet.

“I won’t have you poison yourself with artificial flavoring agents and excess sugar when there’s a storehouse of perfectly healthy foods beneath our feet. I let you have the nachos but that’s as far as I can go. If you want dessert you can have the bellhoptopus bring you some peanut butter.”

“Heart,” Jones said resolutely, “read my lips and my brain. I will have this chocolate, even if I have to tear every muscle in this body.”

“Fine,” he conceded. The robot released his grip, sending the half-melted candy bar, and the fist wrapped around it, smashing into Jones’s face. He fell over, ignored the pain, and chewed victoriously.

“Okay, I’ve got to try some… I just gotta,” E-denta said. She knelt down next to Jones and wiped some melted chocolate off his hand with a fingertip.

“It’s not gonna work,” Braxton said exasperatedly. “Your tongue’s a doorstop.” E-denta smeared it onto her imitation lips like a balm and smacked them together experimentally.

“You know, I think I taste it a little.” Her lips popped together a few more times.

Pfff. Liar,” Braxton said. The two of them continued to argue playfully while Jones stood up and excused himself.

Since they had arrived the hotel had responded to their needs in a number of ways; as the nanobots learned little things about their personalities the shape of the rooms changed subtly. Maggie had slowly been walled off from the rest of them into a chamber that now looked like a giant stable. Jones and Heart walked down a new hallway to Maggie’s room, leaving the sounds of bickering behind.

The sunlight coming in through thin money had faded, and now the hotel generated light of its own from unknown places. Jones noticed that there were no shadowy corners anywhere.

They turned and spotted Maggie, who was lying down and enjoying streams of hot water that shot out at her from several different nozzles along the wall. The soft sounds of the water put Jones at ease, so he leaned on the railing that separated Maggie’s bathing area from the rest of the chamber. He could see the floor beneath his elephant slowly lowering and filling with steamy water. Somehow the hotel had guessed she wanted a bath even more than a shower. A bellhoptopus flew by their heads and dropped a few magenta spheres into the warm tub. They bubbled and sank, filling the air with the scent of lilacs.

This place is amazing, Jones thought to Heart. But we can’t stay. We need tuh get tuh Fortis and warn them.

I know.

I think I’ve got a plan.

I’m all ears.

These tiny robots are programmed tuh make us comfortable… and they’ll do anything tuh accomplish that except letting us go… right?

It seems that way.

Can we fake like we want something? Will they know we’re lying?

I doubt they’re complex enough to tell truth from fiction. What’s your point?

We get mad, me and Braxton. We pretend we’re unhappy. Then we shout out the things we really want. Then they’ll give us those things, right?

Probably.

So we act confined. We ask for open spaces. We demand a view of the scenery. A fresh breeze, open spaces, real windows… stuff like that. You get it?

I think so. I would be sure if you just allowed me to read your mind.

It’s settled then. We’ll spend the night here, load up Maggie with food early tomorrow, and then start bitching and moaning until an exit opens up.

It’s dangerous Jones. Nanobots are fast and their number is countless.

I’ve been tuh Godmask, Heart. All we have tuh do is complain like those people and there’s no way these bitty bugs can keep up with what we want. Besides, Braxton will be even better at it than me.

It’s still risky.

Good, then it’ll be fun too.

Jones licked the last of the chocolate off his lips. He turned to leave Maggie’s room, but Heart insisted on putting him through some stretches before bed since he had spent a large chunk of the day curled up and breathing erratically. Jones humored the robot and did a few lunges. The hotel responded by having the nearest wall recede and create shelves filled with dumbbells.

Something vibrated against his outstretched leg. No way. I can’t deal with this now. He dug the cell phone out of his pocket. Sure enough, a light raced around the screen and words flashed: new text message.

“Finally!” E-denta blurted when Jones opened his eyes the next morning. “This stupid place wouldn’t let me sit down anywhere. I had to stand aaaalllll night.”

“You don’t need a bed,” Braxton half-said and half-yawned. Jones rose to a sitting position and looked around. The cot the hotel had first built for him last night had evolved into the most luxurious bed it could dream up. He was sunk into a thick white pad under a decorative canopy and wrapped in green sheets with gold trim. He rubbed one of the sheets with a flat hand; if it wasn’t silk it was a remarkable imitation. E-denta sat on the edge of the mattress, which responded by melting back into the floor and rolling her away.

“This place sucks,” she complained.

“You’re just mad because these bots are cooler than you,” Braxton said. “This is better than Godmask.” His words swept the last of the sleep from Jones’s mind. Will Braxton screw with the plan just tuh keep suckling from this place? He can’t. Heart… hey Heart.

Yes?

Don’t tell Braxton about the plan. We’ll have tuh drag him out of here.

I was thinking about that last night as well. Doesn’t he have the right to stay if he wants to?

He wants tuh now but I don’t think he will later.

Why do you say that?

No offense Doc, but I’ve got some buyer’s remorse about our little arrangement, seeing as it’s about tuh get a city of people buried under fresh money.

The odds of something like that happening again are astronomical.

I don’t care what numbers you slap on it; we can’t leave him here. What if this place runs out of food but still refuses tuh let him go?

I see your point. How are we going to get him out without telling him about the plan?

I meant drag pretty literally, Doc.

Alright fine. I’ll try and think of a better way to get him out with us while you load up Maggie. She might not want to leave either you know.

No worries, she knows tuh trust me. Besides, I think we only have tuh get the humans out. After that the hotel will probably spit out any robots and pets that tagged along.

Jones called on the bellhoptopuses and they flooded into the room. They responded eagerly to his orders to wrap up and bind large bags of food to Maggie with leathery straps. He could only hope they weren’t smart enough to tell they were preparing to leave. After telling one to discard a package of turnips in favor of a case of Raz-Bomb brand chocolate bars, Jones cornered E-denta and whispered the plan in her ear.

“Ooh okay,” she whispered back. He turned to leave, but the robot grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “Hon… I’m sorry I got us trapped here. I know I’m kind of a screw-up. In the annoying way.”

“You got us food and beds E-denta. I’m thankful. You just need to learn human rule number one.” The robot tilted her head questioningly. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” He vocalized the biggest sigh he could muster and watched the bellhoptopuses. They all turned to look, something like concern on their mostly blank eyes. Time tuh do this. “Boy it sure is cramped in here,” he shouted, letting the words fly up and bounce off the low ceiling. “So uncomfortable. What kind of hotel doesn’t give its guests enough space? I feel like a clam stuck in his little brother’s shell.”

“Some robots just don’t understand people,” E-denta insulted, winking at Jones.

“What are you guys being so loud for?” Braxton asked.

“Keeping humans in such cramped conditions isn’t healthy, not to mention the discomfort,” Heart yelled at the walls, which seemed to lean outward from the force of the sound. The bellhoptopuses flew into a whirlwind of activity, frantically ramming their heads against the wall, helping the other nanobots in the hotel’s materials create more space. The walls flexed and warped, opening the room up like a cathedral. The ceiling went from ten feet high to fifteen. To twenty-five. To forty. A circle opened up in the roof, letting unfiltered sunlight rain down on them. The humans winced.

“Oh yeah that’s much better,” Jones said as he bent over to blink the spots out of his eyes. “So natural. If only they would fix everything else.” A few of the bellhoptopuses broke off from the rest and hovered over to him. There they stayed, at about knee height, and stared at him expectantly like dogs waiting for him to throw a stick. He couldn’t help but feel sorry for them, the same way he couldn’t help feeling sorry for half-drowned pigs and backstabbing gamblers. The same ridiculous sense of brotherhood that made him feel sorry for all the men whose faces were on coins, simply because they were dead.

He could practically feel the sadness and desperation of the nanobots as they struggled to do their task against the tsunami of complaints. He lamented that always, always, someone loses.

“You guys should really do a better job,” he scolded them. He looked away and tried not to imagine tears in their little electric eyes. “Sure it’s a little spacious,” he continued. “I need more though. Some scenery would be great. A nice, natural, wide view of the Riches to have breakfast in front of, wouldn’t that be super?”

“It sure would!” E-denta added.

“What are you guys trying to do?” Braxton asked, irritated. His face crinkled, his eyebrows like two fire blackened twigs. The hotel shook violently this time and the floor sagged under their weight, like standing inside a growling stomach. One of the walls ripped wide open with a sound like a million wet paper towels being torn. As the hotel struggled to keep up each alteration became messier. The torn fabric of the wall melted into a bubbling gray puddle on the floor, broken up by the bits of money and gravel they were built with.

Jones jogged towards the window and nearly fell out of it before a series of rib-like spikes shot up out of it and formed a railing. The edge of it stretched and groaned into a balcony. At first all he saw was the sun, obscured by clouds that looked like the mattress he’d just peeled himself from. Then he looked down and gasped.

“They’ve built a tower!” Heart yelled back to E-denta and Braxton. The Devergoss hotel, which had been nothing more than a sign and a pile of oddly-colored sand the day before, was now a ten story tower with odd gall-like rooms sticking off the sides. Their sleeping qyarters had been raised up so expertly, so evenly, that no one had noticed the mountain being built beneath them. “I guess they started expecting more guests,” he said to Jones, who stared in horror at the piles of money approximately two and a half lethal drops below them.

“What do we do?” he his doctor frantically.

“I suggest you quickly develop acrophobia.”

“What?”

“A fear of heights Jones.”

“There’s no need to develop it Doc. Hey… hey Devergoss Hotel! Don’t you know I’m afraid of heights? You’re scaring the hell out of us! Bring us down! This is an awful place! It’s too high!” Their room lurched again. The balcony side of the floor instantly dropped several feet, sending him tumbling over the railing. Heart used their left hand to grab the edge, which responded by grabbing their hand right back. Apparently the hotel was aware that a dead guest might be an uncomfortable guest. Jones hung there, kicking his legs in the air and struggling to fix his combusting plan.

Inside the room, the tilt rolled Braxton off his bed and down towards the balcony. The railing didn’t so much catch him as collide with him. The Godmasker howled in pain and then barely managed to roll away before E-denta struck it as well. Her metal body cracked several of the rods, raining splinters of cemented money into Jones’s eyes and hair.

The room continued to drop, melting through the floors beneath it. The whole tower took on the structure and thickness of an ice pop dissolving on a summer sidewalk.

“That’s it!” Jones shouted over everything. “We want a room on the ground floor! Those are the best ones!” The section of tower he stared at folded like warm icing. The tip of the balcony stretched, lowering him. His mind went to Maggie and hoped she wasn’t being smothered by the now semi-liquid hotel.

“Jones you bastard! You destroyed my second home,” Braxton said through gritted teeth.

“We’re almost to the ground,” Heart told Jones, whose neck couldn’t stretch backward to look like the robot’s could.

“Maggie!” Jones shouted. “Maggie! To me!” The sagging back wall stretched and tore against the force of Maggie’s head. The elephant’s feet sunk almost a foot into the floor each time she took a step. As the beast powered through she kicked up moist globs of hotel.

Jones’s feet hit the barren dirt at the tower’s base and he tried to pull away, but the tip of the balcony was still glued to his hand. He struggled and yanked at it, trying not to notice the bellhoptopuses exploding around him.

“E-denta, grab Braxton!” he called out. She responded immediately, clawing her way out of a blob that might have, minutes ago, been one of the beds. She snatched Braxton up by the wrists and folded his arms around her neck so she could carry him as a backpack. Then she leapt from the slithering goop and ran alongside Maggie, who had similarly just pulled free of the liquefying mass.

“Let me go!” Braxton demanded. E-denta held onto him with one hand and used the other to grab Charybdis from the holster around Maggie’s back. Then she whipped around, running backwards, and tossed the gun in Jones’s direction.

Heart saw it first and took control of an arm just quickly enough to reach back and grab it. The man and robot responded in unison, holding the rifle up and shooting down to break off the balcony’s tip. At first the coins flew through futilely, the strand of hotel managing to reform each time, but then the strand dried out and cracked as more bullets strained its ability to regenerate. It finally split, allowing them to turn and run for their lives.

How far will they chase us? Jones thought to Heart.

Not far I think. They probably can’t pass the hotel’s property line, so just keep running.

Heart swiveled his neck and was horrified to see the blob of money and dirt, complete with rooms popping like bubbles, stretching slimy tentacles towards them. One lunged like a scorpion stinger. Heart forced his host to leap left as the tentacles smashed and dissolved on the earth next to them. Jones tried to focus on Maggie, who ran about thirty feet in front of him, which proved difficult with Heart bouncing their body back and forth every few steps.

“Knock it off will you!” he growled.

“I don’t think you can handle dodging these when you’re facing the other way.”

“I can handle whatever this sl- Hey!” A tentacle caught up and wrapped around Jones’s left thigh. Heart helped him spin out of its grasp and stumble back into a run. The tentacle had peeled the pocket off his pants and taken its contents with it. Including- “No!” He tried to turn around but Heart wouldn’t allow it. Their legs pumped forward mechanically while Jones bent his torso to the side to catch a glimpse of the receding tentacle. For a split second he saw his cell phone’s screen stuck to the gooey mass. It sank in and dissolved, becoming so much building material for the hotel. He felt it deep in his chest. It was gone. The one rope that connected him and Gala across a vast darkness had just been chewed through. How could he ever find her again?

Several hours later, they had cleared the thickest portions of the Riches. There were shrubs and occasional trees around them now, with roots so deep that they didn’t touch any coins. Maggie picked at the bushes with her trunk as she trudged by. Her four passengers sat on her back in silence and watched the land turn from gold and silver to vibrant green and earthy brown. Every once in a while E-denta would grab a dollar out of the breeze, fold it into an origami crane or frog, and then release it back to the wind.

“I hate all of you,” Braxton fumed. There were red streaks across his cheeks where he had clawed at them. “We had everything there. And best of all, we had it to ourselves.”

“It was a prison,” Heart reasoned. Jones just stared ahead, hoping the issue would die.

“It’s not a prison if you want to be there. Let me go back,” Braxton pleaded. “I deserve to sleep in beds like those… I’m not spending one more night with a bag of veggies as a pillow and a stream of elephant piss as an alarm clock.”

“That place isn’t good for you,” Jones said without turning to face him. “You’re staying with us.”

“What gives you the right, huh? Who made you president of the elephant?” Braxton slapped Maggie’s back.

“We care about you,” E-denta added calmly. “You’re part of the family.”

“I didn’t sign up for any family,” he spat. “Getting trapped between you two morons while you smile and laugh about how great the world is does not make us family. You two are crazy, that’s what it is. You’ve got to be if you think this world is better than a cozy burrow and a conveyor belt of food.”

“You sound like a hamster,” Jones replied. Silence again.

“Are you saying if I try to leave you’ll stop me? You’re saying you want me to be unhappy?”

“Yes,” Jones said.

“Why?”

“Because we do care about you. We’re not going to let you get yourself killed because you think a place like that, literally made of glitchy bots, is heaven. It’s just not. You’ll get it eventually.” Braxton crossed his arms and issued the silent treatment. It didn’t stop him from eating a chunk of cheesy bread that Jones pulled out of one of Maggie’s bags for their lunch. They ate quietly for a few minutes, listened to song birds, and watched a few wild turkeys waddle away from Maggie’s feet as she walked by. They were thin, dark, and tall, like closed waddling umbrellas. Jones considered breaking out Charybdis and turning them into dinner, but decided against it. There was already enough negativity in the air; they didn’t need the death gurgles of turkeys adding to it.

“I’m sorry about your phone,” E-denta suddenly said. Jones turned to her. “I saw the hotel break it,” she explained. He rubbed at his chin for a moment, which was getting very scruffy. His hands felt cold, useless.

“Heart can you give me a shave?” he asked.

“Of course,” the doctor replied. The tiniest tips of Heart’s root-like body found their way into his hair follicles and delicately pushed each whisker out. To Jones it felt like pine needles systematically tapping at his face.

“It’s alright,” he told E-denta, little blond hairs falling away from his upper lip. “It’s just… she sent me a message last night.”

“She did?” E-denta asked, not sounding surprised. Braxton looked up to listen.

“Yeah. It said I miss you. I didn’t respond because I was thinking about our escape plan. Now I can’t.” The wind made the tears gathering in the gutters of his eyes feel icy.

“I don’t know if this’ll make you feel better or worse,” E-denta said. She was wringing her metal hands together with an unpleasant sound and making a face that suggested she was closer to crying than Jones, even without tear ducts. “But Gala didn’t really send that.”

“What?” He accidentally inhaled some of his falling hairs and coughed a little. “What do you mean?”

“Well… I might’ve sent it. I… did. I’m soooo sorry; I know I screwed up.”

“I don’t understand. How did you send it? Her name was at the top.”

“It wasn’t hard. Lots of people had me send texts to their crushes back when people still visited Bee Tower. Lots of phone plans run through the internet so I just started a messaging account under her name… and I sent it to you. I’m sorry babe. I thought it would make you happy.” The last of the hair fell from his side burns, leaving his face smooth and blank. Everything looked a little gray, except for E-denta; she seemed to radiate guilt. She crumpled some of the metal on the hem of her dress and stared at a knot in Maggie’s spine. Too much negativity already.

“It’s okay E-denta,” he said. She looked up apologetically. “You’re allowed to be happy.” He smiled at her, a gesture she returned with twice the width. Now I have tuh move on.

“I was hoping you’d punch her,” Braxton broke in, “and come away with busted knuckles.”

“Oh pipe down,” Jones said. “We’ll be at Fortis in a few days and you’ll get to feel what it’s like to save someone.”

“Once you fall asleep Oregon 1 will know we’ve escaped the hotel. He’ll be looking for ways to slow us down… or kill us,” Heart reminded.

“Yeah but he’ll also see this,” E-denta said. She looked into Jones’s eyes as if into a television camera. “Hey Oregon 1, you’re an idiot!” She stuck out her imitation tongue and gave two thumbs down. “You’re gonna be in a world of trouble when we get to you.” She mimed flexing her arms. “You can’t stop us. We’ve got spirit. You’re just a lonely old hamster wheel rolling along. You know what… we’re going to build you an ass just so we can kick it.”

“Easy there spitfire,” Jones said between chuckles. He looked up into the sky, feeling sunlight poking in the empty follicles on his cheeks. “We are coming Oregon 1. Fortis cannot be destroyed because it’s filled with people like us; people who are stronger than you.”

He slept peacefully that night. The chaos that took place during it didn’t burden him until he wiped the crust from his eyes and rolled over. Aside from several tightly twisted blankets, the tent was empty. Jones sat up, yawned, and scratched his lower back. The skin there felt sensitive since he’d slept atop of his sleeping bag’s zipper the whole night; the outline of it was still red. This was peculiar, because Heart usually rotated him in his sleep if his position compromised blood flow or irritated his skin.

“Hey Doc you missed your cue last night,” he said. No answer. “Doc?” With the sleep finally draining from his mind, Jones noticed that Heart hung limply against his chest. The robot showed no signs of life. The patch on his shoulder, where man and machine connected, was scarlet and inflamed like bruised phoenix skin. “Wake up Doc.” He poked at his physician’s little head, which swung a little, but otherwise didn’t respond. He’s not out of battery; my blood’s still flowing after all. Then he noticed a dent on the side of Heart’s head. The depression ran all the way from his left eye to the corner of his mouth. One part of his neck looked bent as well.

“Doc! Dr. Heart!” He lifted the robot’s small head with one hand and shook it a few times, which was the only first aid he knew for machines. Luckily he started to respond, head slowly lifting up and lights in his eyes flickering on and off until their blue glow came solidly to life. Humming came out of his flapping mouth until his vocal program caught up with the motions.

“Oh my head… Are you alright Jones?”

“Yeah I’m fine. How’d you get that… uh… that shiner?”

“It was Braxton.”

“What’s that ungrateful punk done now?” Jones noticed Heart’s expression. The robot’s eyes grew wider and his head tilted down as if a very fat bird had landed on him.

“He…” He seemed concerned in a way Jones hadn’t seen before, like his physician was now worried about the health of every bug, of every molecule, in the tent, as if he was considering whether the very first cell to perform mitosis suffered during it. The power in that look threw Jones off a cliff of worry. Something had happened. Something worse than everything else. Someone had just dug to a new, gross, inhuman depth in the underworld’s deepest well.

“Oh shit… Doc what happened?” Jones got up, his head rubbing on the top of the tent and freeing little pops of static electricity. He started unzipping the flap, expecting that, perhaps, the sun’s first rays had set everything ablaze.

“Braxton took Charybdis after you went to sleep. I asked him what he thought he was doing. I was about to wake you when he swung it at me. The blow… it shut me down temporarily. I don’t know what happened after that.”

“I could kill that son of a-” Jones emerged into the morning light. At first nothing seemed amiss. There were trees. The sky was still up, the ground still down. Coins still sparkled worthlessly. The wind dislodged yellowed dollars from branches and sent them spinning down. Maggie was lying down near the tent, trunk outstretched and grabbing playfully at rocks and twigs. “Where is he? And where’s E-denta?” Jones asked, both angry and frightened.

“I don’t know. I know as much as you do now.” Jones stuck his head back in the tent and scanned it. Then he ran over to Maggie and checked all her bags and holsters. He even ordered her to move her bulk twenty feet over to see if she had been lying on anything.

“He took Charybdis. He took my family’s rifle… my dad would kill me. His ghost’s probably on its way now…” Jones remembered there was something even more important. “E-denta?” No response. “E-denta!” he shouted. He repeated the name thirty odd times, facing every point of the compass, some of them twice. The cries turned his throat ragged and made it feel like Clydesdale horses had trampled his vocal cords.

“She must be around here,” Heart said to calm him. “Let’s just walk around a little.”

“Something’s wrong,” Jones countered. “You machines hear better than people. She would’ve heard me.” He ran behind the tent and started kicking at leaves. Every dot of moisture on soil suddenly looked like the glint of metal; it was like he knowingly sought out a landmine that would obliterate him. She was here. And she would have heard. Unless…

He spotted some purple over the back of a decaying log. He leapt over it and dropped to his knees, not believing what he saw. E-denta’s head was half flawless… and half scrap metal. Her mind was a bluish seashell of extinguished lights, advanced plastics with stamped serial numbers, and spiraling metal wires that glistened like abalone. Shattered social butterfly wing dusted her shoulder.

“Fix her Heart,” he begged, wringing his hands. His body pumped up and down on his toes. “Hurry up and fix her.”

“Jones. I can’t. I’m a human doctor. She’s… she’s gone.”

“No. No she can’t be. Nobody that joyful can die. That’s not right… It’s like seeing a butterfly with a shorn wing.” He sniveled. Her body was lying awkwardly on one arm while the fingers on the other curled in stiffly. The intact half of her head still held a frozen smile.

“She didn’t even see it coming,” he cried. “I’m going to kill that bastard. I’m going to tear his little Godmasker head off.” Tears came again. Jones’s mind struggled to stay afloat. He thought of the loss that still plagued him and was certain he couldn’t take a double load of it. He may have been allowed to be happy, but happiness was impossible. He reached his hand out to stroke her arm, to feel the reality of her passing. His fingers froze inches from her alloyed skin.

“You shouldn’t touch her Jones. You might do more damage. Perhaps we can learn how to fix her and return later.”

“Let me touch her Doc. I need to make sure there’s no warmth left.” He pushed his hands again but they didn’t budge.

“She’s robotic. The only warmth she ever had came from the sun. Trust me when I say she’s gone.” Jones ignored him and kept pushing.

“You didn’t even like her,” he accused. “You’re glad she’s dead. You couldn’t stand the fun she had just from being alive. You hated that she was more than her programs.” He grunted and growled but only the tips of his fingers wiggled pathetically.

“That’s not true Jones. We had our differences yes, but I would never wish this on her.”

“Let me bury her Doc,” he said, anger fading into sorrow.

“I can’t. There are very good mental health reasons why you shouldn’t be allowed to touch her body. The reality of it might overwhelm you and you know you’re in a sensitive place. I just can’t let you; I’m sorry.”

“Then I should die here too. I should find a rock and smash one side of my head and lie down next to her.” Heart forced them to stand. One of their hands reached down weakly and caressed the air since he couldn’t reach her cheek.

“We’ve got to go. Those people still need your help. Fortis will still fall if we don’t get there on time. Even though Oregon 1 will soon have what he wants, I don’t doubt that his first act as a free machine will be to destroy the city. He hates you more than he’s hated any human and he knows to hurt you through them.”

“What do you mean he’s going to get what he wants?” Jones asked wearily. His sorrow had stopped him from following through to the obvious conclusions of the night’s tragedy.

“Braxton took your rifle. He’s going to give it to Oregon 1 in hopes of a reward, something to replace the two homes we destroyed,” Heart explained. He made him turn and walk towards Maggie. Their body was going to prepare for departure whether he was ready or not. Jones’s head lolled to the side as his body busied itself, giving him the appearance of a marionette with a severed head string.

“How is that murderer going to find Oregon 1 anyway?” he asked as his hands robotically disassembled the tent.

“Braxton just has to wait until you fall asleep next. Then Oregon 1 will know he has the gun and will probably send a robot to guide him.” Jones prepared to say something but the doctor interrupted, going so far as to shut his mouth for him. “We’re better off trying to reach the city than trying to find one man. Justice for E-denta can wait. I know you Jones and I won’t hear any more arguments. In a few hours, when we’re on the road and you’ve calmed down, you’ll know I’ve done the right thing.” The robot sealed his ward’s mouth and took total control of his body.

A few hours, Jones’s fevered brain thought. A few hours tuh mourn. Then I’ll come back tuh my body. Back tuh the war path.

President Digz

President Digz had vice president Longjump, as the enforcer of governmental decrees, banish Vippers from Brightside. Brittle might have control over him that he didn’t quite understand, but Digz wasn’t going to stand by with such an obvious puppet of his around. The man might never have bothered to slither his way into town again, but Digz was sure that if he did it would be with a plan far cleverer than the sham election.

Decree number two involved Nerva Satin and a waitress uniform. As punishment for losing the people’s support, Digz had her serving drinks in the Orange Circle Casino, which was now the Orange Circle Common Hall. The games were still there, Digz knew better than to tear them down directly, but not many played thanks to the new regulations. He had decided that no one could wager anything they, or their family, were physically attached to. Every eye patch, nose plug, and thick glove was peeled away and tossed to the ground.

Nerva’s old bodyguards, Brightside’s new force of janitors, picked them up between scowls. The police, who migrated to him like ducklings moments after the election, were busy wiping up the rest of Nerva’s old associates.

Digz sat in a folding chair in front of Brightside’s largest screen, staring at the crack in its side. Fixing the cracks, he thought. This place will hold water again. People will act like people. Nobody’s going to live in holes now that I’m in charge. He remembered Jones’s favorite phrase. The world is on its way back up.

Improved but by no means flawless, Digz decided to take a long break and watch some sitcoms on the giant screen. He asked Longjump to bring him the remote. The robot complied, although his body language seemed even more bored than usual. His metal hand clicked on the plastic side of the screen, which opened a panel. Out popped a little shelf with a keyboard and a mouse. The remote sat next to them. Longjump grabbed it and tossed it with intentionally poor aim, forcing him to topple his chair in the effort to catch it.

“Thanks buddy,” Digz said, oblivious to the disrespect of the toss. He settled back into the chair, brushing a few coins away from the legs so they wouldn’t wobble. With the press of a button the screen came to life and he used the arrow buttons to scroll through comedy program options. Seen it twelve times… seen it twenty times… seen it sixteen times… seen it fourteen and a half… boring… seen it six times… seen… well I’ve never seen that before. Something brand new hopped across the screen, looking lost and hurried. It wasn’t some mook-discovered show or blob of static. Since it wasn’t telling a joke or trying to sell him something it couldn’t possibly be television.

“Hey Longjump, what is that thing?” he asked and pointed to the wandering image. The robot glanced at it but didn’t attempt to explain. Digz stood up and walked closer to it. He felt the slightly electric aura of it and tapped at the strange image. It didn’t respond. Some things about it were clearer now that he’d gotten close; it was a little video stream of some strange creature with a toad-like body. It carried something golden and plumes of bright lashes framed its wide excited eyes.

Jones and Heart

Grief kept Jones awake for an almost inhuman time. The image of E-denta’s shattered hardware scrolled across his mind, the largest picture in a collage of powerful images that both assaulted and motivated him. The feeling of uselessness could only last so long, and now it had been replaced by resolve. They journeyed to save the people of Fortis: the people who inspired his lifelong optimism. These were people who could build paradise from garbage can lids. They could purify tar pits into indigo lagoons. They could push money away and hold up the lives of each other as the things to cherish.

They journeyed for E-denta, who had died happy simply because that’s who she was. And who I am.

Still, these thoughts could not keep him awake forever. He hated to fall asleep because the moment he did Oregon 1 would know Braxton had his treasure. Heart kept their body riding on Maggie, as there was no time to stop and make camp anymore. So even though his hands gripped her straps and his legs pressed firmly against her skin, his vision faded in and out. Sleep could take him peacefully or it could take him kicking and screaming.

He tried to stay awake by counting the number of crimson Utah 5,000 dollar bills they crossed, but they might as well have been sheep. His eyes closed.

Dr. Heart, regretting his programming, sent Jones’s update to the website.

Oregon 1

What used to be garage doors opened suddenly with a sound like wheelbarrows rutting. Forty green discs flew out of the retrofitted docking bay and immediately began to split up. Each modified stump custodian was assigned a path to follow in search of Braxton. They all had the same message scrawled on their back with oil: Paradise is yours. Follow this robot.

After close examination of all the footage from Jones’s eyes, Oregon 1 had done his best to assess Braxton’s psychology and motives. He wanted to be comfortable. Oregon 1 would promise him that. He wanted food brought to him. Oregon 1 would promise that.

With an estimate of how far that lazy and confused human could’ve wandered based on Jones’s last position, Oregon 1 assigned different patches of land to his new flying soldiers. They were to locate a human with a Charybdis rifle and lead him back to the mobile factory. There he could finally get his metal arms on that little brown stain.

The mobile mint ran diagnostics on the cloning chambers and other medical equipment he had acquired in preparation long ago. He had metabolic enhancers, gene splicers, tissue replicators, artificial organ vats, and a whole menagerie of ghastly hypodermic needles. It shouldn’t be too difficult to, with the proper DNA, grow something mostly human that could make a few sounds before it passed away in agony. All he needed was a vibrating rasp from the vocal cords of something that was mostly Cray Dipper.

The stumps scattered to the wind as their master plowed the last miles of his trail to Fortis.

Jones and Heart

“She really would have loved chocolate,” Jones said. Heart didn’t respond, since he’d learned it was best to not let Jones dwell on the death. Instead he stared straight ahead, using their arms and legs to keep Maggie on course. After several days of travel and a few hundred conversations about the death of robots, specifically loony female dancer ones, they were but an hour from the edges of Fortis.

“We’re nearly there Jones. Maybe you should make yourself presentable.”

“Why would they care what I look like?” He purposefully looked away from his dirt-coated hunting shirt.

“Whether or not they take your story seriously will be intimately connected to how much you look like a raving raccoon.” Jones sighed in agreement and pulled off his shirt. A cool breeze turned the mist of sweat on his chest into a thousand pin pricks. He went to pick at a small scab but Heart pulled their hand back.

“What am I going to say when I get there?”

“Just tell them the truth. We can only hope there’s enough time to evacuate.”

“Evacuate?” Jones scoffed. “Not Fortis. They’ll fight for their home.”

“If all they’ve got is men and coinshooters they won’t stand much of a chance. Oregon 1 is a crawling factory. If it’s anything like the factories you’ve seen in the past it will be so tall that even a human pyramid won’t reach the top of one of its treads.”

“Doesn’t matter,” the man argued, slowly shaking his head. He turned the hunting shirt inside out in his hands and pulled it back over his body. It looked marginally cleaner but, when combined with the dark circles under his eyes, he still looked a few photo ops short of a decent reputation. “If they can stay civilized in the middle of the Riches then they can fight a dirt-eating machine like that. Plus, we’re going to help them. I’ve still got my skullpopper, my shovelshooter, and the magnet shield in one of these bags.”

“Would you die with them?” Heart asked gravely.

“In a second… I’m sorry if it kills you too.”

“I should stop you.”

“But you won’t,” Jones wagered.

The landscape changed slowly. Hills of paper money sank to the size of autumn leaf piles. The clatter of coins was replaced by the crackle of stones and soil. They passed cultivated fields of soy beans and apples. Although many of the plants looked freshly watered there were no people in sight.

Jones was careful to keep Maggie from crushing any of the crops with her gigantic feet. Part of him hated being there. Each step was a separate criminal act of trespass because he wasn’t good enough to enter. The ground was molded by hands nobler and more compassionate than his own, hands with the gentleness of his mother and the calluses of his father. He felt so like a tick drawing blood from the land just to have its richness coagulate and harden inside him.

“This agriculture is a good sign. It looks lightyears ahead of Brightside,” Heart commented.

“It’s weird when you say things like that… because you’ve never been to Brightside.” Jones squinted as they exited an apple tree’s shade.

“No, but I’ve seen the videos in your memory.”

“That’s how I feel now,” he said with a tight throat. “I’ve never been here before but it’s like I’ve seen it. Mom said it would be this way. She said they were great, in part, because they remembered that plants need dirt instead of funds.” Maggie stopped and swayed nervously. “What is it girl?” He raised his hand like a visor to shut out the sun, hearing nothing except for his steed’s breath.

“Halt stranger!” a voice ordered when Jones urged Maggie forward. The sound was young and seamless, as if it had never cracked and never would. Jones and Heart looked up and spotted a wooden deck built into one of the larger trees. A child, no more than eleven, stood at its railing with a coinshooter trained on them. A row of headless and skinned squirrels dangling from the railing by strings testified to the young man’s accuracy. His skin was a caramel color and his hair was both dark and cropped very close to the scalp.

Jones spent a longer moment analyzing the gun; it looked both new and old in the sense that its body was cast from aluminum instead of dyed plastics and rubbers. It seemed perfectly capable of killing things that were too heavy to hang with string.

“Easy there kid,” he said and raised his hands in the air. “We need to speak to your parents. It’s an emergency.”

“If you’re lost, just turn around. When you can’t see these fields you’ll be where you belong.” Cwic. The sound of a button clasp. Jones whipped around and saw three more children. They had snuck up from behind and formed a small pyramid to reach one of Maggie’s bags, which one of them now searched aggressively. Jones couldn’t help but remember what Heart said about human pyramids.

“There’s dangerous stuff in there,” he warned without lowering his hands. The children paid no heed. One by one his weapons were confiscated. He put on a smile and tried acting like he’d come across a lemonade stand instead of a watchtower. “Careful there. There are easier ways to get an allowance.” He chuckled. “There’s a mean old monster heading for the city. I need to warn your parents so they can protect you.” The head child holstered his weapon, leapt from the tree, and grabbed the edge of the deck to slow the fall. His landing turned into a roll that brought him to the tip of Maggie’s trunk. Jones leaned forward to see the child’s stony eyes.

“We already know about the mint you idiot. Follow us and you might live.”

The edge of the fields was a manicured, almost surgical, line separating grass from cobblestone. The buildings of Fortis were small and dome-shaped with the exception of a few office buildings from the old world clustered near the center. The fields had fulfilled Jones’s expectations, but not these. His imaginings had contained silvery spires shooting into the heavens, perhaps with flying machines flapping gracefully between them.

“It’s actually intelligently laid out,” Heart said after sensing his patient’s disappointment. “Notice the storm drains. They’ve probably got aqueducts running through the whole city.”

“You think?” Doing something well doesn’t mean doing it beautifully. With the underwhelming environment quietly passing by, he was free to think about what the children had said. They knew Oregon 1 was coming. This was all pointless… she died for nothing. She got her head smashed in for my arduous, destructive, big, fat nothing.

She would still be doing the can-can on that dusty dark platform if it wasn’t for our journey.

You’re not supposed tuh be reading my mind.

Desperate times my friend. If the children of Fortis are this dangerous, imagine the adults.

They didn’t need our warning. My kiddy dreams of this place are going tuh get it destroyed. E-denta’s dead. Fortis will be dead… and nothing, blood-filled or electric, can redeem me.

It is Oregon 1 that cannot be redeemed Jones. He can’t even comprehend ideas like that. If you are thrown into a lake it is not your fault for drowning.

Maybe it’s time tuh just… sink.

That would put you beyond redemption. You can still fight with them. You can still save lives. If you don’t… then you’re just Digz or Braxton looking for a comfortable hole to sleep in.

“Get off,” one of the children ordered. “We will water your animal for you.” Jones dismounted and tried to make his landing look half as graceful as the child’s jump from the tree.

“Thank you,” he said, briefly considering if he should bow. He was led into a long low building with curved walls. The child steered him past an armory filled to the brim with metal coinshooters, a kitchen alive with steam and bubbling broths, and another armory with rows of tall riot shields. They passed through a blue curtain door into a room with six adults all gathered around a map of the city. They were arguing and moving little brown pegs around the map.

“Father,” the child called. The men stopped and looked over. Jones saw the same humorless expression on all their faces. “This man says he has information about the factory. He brought with him an elephant, a robot, two coinshooters, and a magnet shield.” The boy’s father, who had dark brown skin and shoulders like a bull’s, dismissed the child with a nod.

“Have a seat over there,” the man said. Jones lowered himself into a rigid but expertly carved wooden chair. The man waved his hand, which sent the others back to the map and their arguments. He pulled up another chair and spent a long moment looking into Jones’s eyes. Then he took an equal moment to analyze Dr. Heart. “My name is Ozar. I am the chief of the Fortis militia. I’m sorry but I don’t have the time for your life story,” he looked at Dr. Heart again, “as much as I’d like to hear it. What do you know of the factory and how did you find us?”

Shoot. Do I tell them this is my fault?

I advise against it.

There you go saving our hide again.

“My robot has the internet. He used it to pull up some maps so I could find you… Oh I’m sorry Ozar… My name’s Jones.” He extended his hand, which Ozar shook and released as quickly as possible. Jones brushed off the feeling he had just shaken hands with his own father.

“And the factory?”

“The factory’s name is Oregon 1. I’ve… crossed paths with it before. It hates humans. My robot saw some of its posts on a website. It said it was targeting Fortis… the only real civilization left.” He swallowed. Ozar’s face gave away nothing, and neither did his voice.

“Is there anything unusual about this mint? Anything special?”

“Sort of. It’s got something that can free it from its programming. I don’t know what that means for you exactly… but he’ll be able to do things no other mint can. He won’t just make money out of what he runs over. He’ll seek people out and kill them.”

“He may reveal a new form,” Heart added. “With no programming bonds he can change his body to any shape and size he desires.”

“Why should I believe any of this?” Ozar asked. Jones noticed he had a holstered coin pistol on one hip and a sheathed knife on the other.

This place is my father more than my mother. It’s time tuh impress. Heart, speed me up if you can.

Be careful.

Jones flew forward and grabbed the hilt of Ozar’s knife, which had a wheat back penny welded onto the bottom. He ripped it from the sheath and used what little time he had left to press it up to Ozar’s neck.

By the time he got it there all of the death in the room was aimed at him.

Every man and woman at the map had turned to face them. Five more pistols were trained on him. Ozar had drawn his gun as well and had it angled up at Jones’s heart. Jones pressed the knife a little and noticed a drop of blood. He hadn’t meant to cut him, but the knife had proved much sharper than anticipated.

“If I had wanted to kill you or disadvantage your city,” he growled, “I would do it right now. I slogged through the bowels of the fieriest beasts of the underworld to get here and warn you. A damn robot is in my veins. I climbed a million stairs, took a hundred stings and burns, half-drowned in a world that melted like fever dreams… and watched happiness die.” Ozar blinked. Jones threw the knife across the room, where it stuck in the wall. He stood slowly and watched the coin slot barrels follow him like the cat eyes of void-born and death-fed reapers. Jones smiled as if no human had ever threatened another.

“I’m here to help.”

They were given some accommodations for the night in the form of a basement room. His information absorbed by the Fortis war machine, he’d been shoved aside. The only gratitude was in the gentleness of the shoving.

“At least they’ll let me fight with them,” Jones said to Heart as they both examined their returned weapons. He sat on the edge of the cot and held up his magnet shield with one hand. Heart took the other and extended silvery tendrils out from under the fingernails. The metallic hairs danced over the surface of the shield, searching for cracks or bad wiring.

“I’m sorry this place isn’t what you expected,” Heart said. He set aside the shield and picked up the shovelshooter. The tendrils began to dance again. Jones listened to the gentle sweeping sound they made and contrasted it with the rushed footsteps from above.

“It’s alright. Stopping Oregon 1 is all that matters now. Besides, they’ll see what I’m worth when the battle starts.” The shovelshooter’s diagnostic came back clean. They set it aside and pulled the skullpopper pistol up for inspection.

“This is a strange weapon,” Heart noted as he ran his hundreds of hands across it.

“Yeah it only fires black octagon quarters. Having one ammo type means the barrel doesn’t have to change shape. Makes it more accurate.”

“And yet you preferred to use the Charybdis?”

“Of course. Charybdis is a tool. You can show it off, make threats, whack people with it… it’s a telescope, a paperweight, a battery… oh and a gun.”

“And this is?” Heart asked, holding up the skullpopper on a bed of silver threads.

“It’s an executioner,” Jones said, his voice solid as stone. “It shoots darkness and brings it. That’s all. It’s a grim thing. The kind of thing I hoped wouldn’t belong in Fortis.” They set the weapon back on the bed. Jones pulled several rolls of black quarters out of one of his bags and set them next to the pistol.

“You know, there was a place in the old world called the happiest place on Earth,” Heart said.

“Oh yeah? What was it like?”

“Humans would pay large sums of money, back before they walked on them, to stand in lines, take photographs with people dressed like Godmaskers, and occasionally see children vomit.”

“Your point being?”

“They enjoyed it. They enjoyed it so much they called it paradise.”

“Paradise doesn’t cost money. It costs things that matter. Things you’d never consider paying.”

“That… is my point.”

“I’m getting revenge for her Heart.”

“Are you so sure she’d want it?”

“It’s what I want.”

“Yes it is. Misguided as it may be it’s why I’m not turning us around and forcing you to flee.”

“Thanks for that.”

Continued in The Finale

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